If an actor's face is his fortune, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is rolling the dice, big time. "Looper," the sci-fi time-travel extravaganza that opens Sept. 28, stars Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo and . . . who's the guy on the movie poster?
It's Gordon-Levitt -- looking slightly more recognizable than he is in the movie, directed by Rian Johnson and in which Gordon-Levitt plays Joe Simmons, a hit man -- or "looper" -- for the mob, circa 2044. Time travel isn't possible in Joe's time, but it is in 2072, when gangsters send their victims back in time to be rubbed out by the likes of Joe, thus creating the perfect disposal system for unwanted wise guys.
In Johnson's script, the wrinkle is that, at some point, one's victim can very well be one's self -- as it is with Joe, who is supposed to kill his older version (Willis) but lets him get away ("letting his loop run"). He thus has to chase himself through the movie lest the mob chief from the future (Daniels) have the younger Joe knocked off instead. Confusing? Not really. "I didn't want it to be algebra homework," Johnson said.
But if the face Gordon-Levitt is wearing seems disconcertingly familiar, it's supposed to be: Under the prosthetics and behind the evocative voice, Gordon-Levitt is impersonating a young Willis -- at least as imagined by the filmmakers and the leading man. At the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Looper" premiered two weeks ago, Gordon-Levitt was asked whether Willis -- who seemed to be movie-starring all over town -- had met him halfway. The answer was, not really.
"Well, I feel like it's proper for the younger man to defer to his senior," Gordon-Levitt said, "and someone as accomplished and fantastic as Bruce is."
Besides, said Gordon-Levitt, who was at TIFF last year with "50-50" and starred this summer in "The Dark Knight Rises," Johnson gave him the kind of opportunity he likes: a chance to disappear.
"That's my favorite thing to do as an actor," he said. "To become somebody else. My favorite performances are always the ones where you don't see the actor, you see the performance. So to say I disappear into the movie is the highest compliment."
Besides, his director said, Gordon-Levitt "is sort of a leading man with the soul of a character actor. He loves vanishing into parts. This was an opportunity to literally do that."
Johnson and Gordon-Levitt first worked together on "Brick," which became a cult hit for the way it transplanted a film-noir aesthetic and hard-boiled dialogue to a high-school milieu. That film came out in 2003, and, ever since, Johnson and Gordon-Levitt have been talking about "Looper."
"I had written a script for a short film I never ended up making," Johnson said in Toronto. "It was supposed to be shot in a weekend in L.A. on a video camera, and we never did it. But after 'Brothers Bloom,' I dusted it off and thought of some bigger themes to expand it."
Because it's a genre movie ("All of Rian's movies have been genre movies," Gordon-Levitt said, "just the way all of Kubrick's movies are genre movies"), comparisons to other films are easy. And inevitable. Because part of the plot involves Willis' character trying to eliminate the child who will grow up to become the Rainmaker -- the master criminal of the future who will ruin his life -- "The Terminator" certainly comes to mind. So does the time-traveling "12 Monkeys" (1995), partly because it starred Willis, and so does "La Jetee," the 1962 French film by Chris Marker that inspired "12 Monkeys."
"I had seen 'La Jetee' at the time I wrote the script, but I had also just discovered Philip K. Dick, and was reading all of his books," Johnson said of the famed sci-fi novelist. "So I think that's what my head was mostly steeped in. The way he uses these fantastic notions to dig into really human stuff. That's probably more what it is."
Had he made the film back then, of course, Johnson wouldn't have had quite the palette of effects now at his disposal, even if he'd prefer to stay away from them.
"This was my first time engaging with the process of doing effects, and there were certain things I was really insistent on -- like a limited use of CG," he said of computer graphics. "Not to talk CG down, I think it's a really good tool when you use it correctly." But, like director Guillermo Del Toro -- or, even more famously, "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan -- he wanted to use it sparingly. "Like when something floats in 'Looper,' it's mostly wire work," Johnson said. "We just painted out the wires in post-production. The motorcycles were mounted on green poles to trucks and really driven, and we just removed the poles later."
The insistence on real things happening to an actor -- rather than, say, in a movie like "Transformers," where an actor has to stand against a green screen and imagine a 30-story monster coming at him -- is a huge benefit to a performance, Gordon-Levitt said.
"I guess if you're acting against a green screen and having to make things up, that's an intriguing challenge, too," he said. "But if you're trying to do a realistic and grounded drama, you want to really be there." It also applies to the prosthetics, he said, which are the work of famed special-effects makeup man Kazuhiro Tsuji ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").
"I would describe him as an alchemist, as a magician of sorts," Gordon-Levitt said. "He's got an entire array of tools and formulas and potions."
The quote from Hitchcock
Gordon-Levitt's makeup, as extraordinary as it is, may not be the most-discussed issue generated by "Looper," which has among its plot points the murder of children, something the movies once considered absolutely taboo.
"What's the quote from Hitchcock?" Johnson asked. "He did an interview where he said his biggest mistake in 'Sabotage' was killing the kid with the bomb on the bus. He said, 'The audience never forgave me for that and I lost them for the rest of the movie.'
"So I was really terrified," Johnson said. "But those moments were integral to the shape of the movie and how your moral compass swings for the rest of the film. But I think we would have been in a lot of trouble if Bruce hadn't given the performance he gave."
The director said if such violence were done gratuitously, "it would be disgusting. But I think we do the opposite and show the implications of it. I think that regarding violence in movies in general, there's a way to do it gratuitously and there's a way to do it where you're actually having a discussion about violence. And I think that's important. It's important to remember that film is cultural conversation. And the solution to violence is not to stop talking about it."